The Importance of Being a Cow: A Mother or a Meal?


The more conservative a society, the more is its ritualistic overtone, and vice versa. In other words, by the very definition of conservatism – an ideology built around the idea to conserve – is heavily dependent on various rituals and practices epitomizing that ‘ism’ of conservation. Therefore, conservatism and ritualistic celebration are directly proportional to each other and not at loggerheads with each other. A conservative society is highly ritualistic. It draws its functionality from everyday rituals and practices and also elaborate rituals associated with the life-stages of humans namely birth, community initiation, marriage and death. This way, India, a typical example of conservative South Asian society is largely characterized by its loyalty towards everyday practices, often based on religious identity and often other primordial identities like caste and gender. However, conservative societies like India are facing an interesting crisis. Insofar as these societies remained conservative in all its facets would not be a problem. But the misfit begins when these conservative societies like India adapts a liberal economy.

Even at the risk of being labeled as economic determinist, in a strictly Marxist fashion, it is hard to deny that conservatism of a society in its everyday life can sustain happily at the behest of a ruthlessly liberal economy that invites cultural flows from all possible nooks and corners of the world! Again, India, is a very apt example of this. Conservative mindset of a Brahmanical society is caught between the pull of a neoliberal economy that copies more than it adapts and how! On one hand, the mainstream Indian society is strewn with caste politics and gender injustice – a double-trouble that comes as a combo – there is no end to gender inequality in India till caste is overthrown; while on the other hand, one witnesses the major rush of economic liberalization and now globalization that has made “other cultures” trespass into the overtly patriarchal Brahmanized “Great Tradition” (in a typical Yogendra Singh fashion) in India. These other cultures mostly constitute the countries India has international trade with – the most significant being America. Concomitantly, it is no surprise that the process of McDonaldization can be less be observed in India than in the USA. However, cultural replication is not remotely close to cultural synchronization or cultural adaption. As a result, Indian society is caught in a limbo, a huge crisis. Indian society is a wannabe that wants to be the coy bride at her wedding and also wants to show enough cleavage to the co-travellers during her honeymoon package tour to Malibu. It wants it all! Consequently, it is kind of in a huge mess now as it fits nowhere. Indian society on one side wants to cling onto its rituals including myopic caste practices, sexist arranged marriages, parochial burial rituals and so on. On the other hand, it also wants to dance to Justin Beiber and wants to accept so. The result is a big confusion as to what to belief – whether the people should believe the rituals more or the malls, high rises and the flyovers more; if they should trust the maulvi more or the Louis Vutton ore; whether they should rely more on sacred thread as a process of community (among the Hindu Brahmins) initiation or first visit to Hard Rock Café to find their ‘tribe’. But, these confused participants of the society have to hold onto something – to sustain, if not to evolve. In a situation of societal confusion what Durkheim called anomie, humans need totems to stay connected with each other. Similarly, Indian society has also found its totem – the cow. The cow is a gift of modern day conservative-liberal dichotomy of the Indian society in which some worship the cow while eat the cow; some adore the cow while some negate the cow; some signifies the cow while some undermines the cow. Nevertheless, the cow is indeed the quintessential symbol of conformity, of protest, of resistance and of fury.

So the cow is the only common imagery that a diversified society like India can all find together. Within different religious contexts, cow is definitely there – as a mother or as a meal. There is no escaping the cow in India these days because this is the only tangible collective imagery that the people residing in India can identify with. However, the cow is hardly an imagery with social function since it emerges out of anomie, of confusion. Within the context of series of mob lynching over cow meat in recent times in the country that quite normalizes violence in our everyday life, the collective memory of the cow has invoked more confusion and renders pathological.

The cow epitomizes the pangs of a society caught in a socio-economic imbalance where the Society has lost pace to the Economy. India is a classical example of hedonistic economic ‘reforms’ with little foresight of social adaptability of that reform in which the cow dominates humans as evolution goes back in track!

Amrita is a Visiting Lecturer at Global South Studies Centre, University of Cologne. Her area of interest includes mobility studies, Indo-German migration and diaspora, Indian politics and gender studies. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

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